Hemingway and his industrial accident

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Papa, using this cane yesterday and this morning, I was thinking about you. It was romantic, that limping around – but it wasn’t only romantic.

No, it wasn’t only romantic. It was a damn nuisance, as well. And it was a loss that was bearable because it had meaning as an honorable war wound. Only with the coming of time did I start to feel it as an industrial accident, and then saw the other woundeds as equally the result of industrial accidents, regardless of their valor – an important point people often miss. And from there it became possible to see the entire war not as a crusade of right versus wrong – which is how it had been sold to us, how we had sold it to ourselves – but as one colossal industrial accident that had maimed us for no particular reason.

If you understand how I came to see it that way, you’ll understand better my attitude toward the second world war. I went into that one without illusions. The men at war were a fascinating phenomenon, and the war had to be won, but as evil as the Nazis were, they were only evil in a different way from the people running England and France, not to mention Russia and the little dictatorships all over Europe. The little countries weren’t so much to blame, but their sufferings were as much the result of geography and history as of anybody’s evil intent. You might say that the invasion of Belgium both times, and Holland and Denmark and all the second time, were another form of industrial accident.

That’s a lot of insight to get from your wounding.

From my wounding, but also from some reporting for the [Montréal] Star after my wounding. The Turkish war showed me World War I in miniature and in retrospect. Is all there in Farewell To Arms and The Sun Also Rises, but you have to be able to see that my perceptions were neither simple-minded nor trendy nor the party line. And God knows, I wasn’t advocating that anybody live like Brett or Mike or even Jake. I was just describing the aftermath – the emotional aftermath – of one giant industrial accident. With time it became clear that this accident was still in progress. As you’ve seen and see and are going to continue to see. It’s hard to get too excited about Progress and the Rights Of Man and the Victory of this or that principle, when you see that it is mostly illusion on some people’s part and deception on other people’s part and what you would call general unconsciousness on everybody’s part living through it. It’s just that I was wounded so quickly that I had just what I had wanted when I shipped out! I was a hero, or as much of a hero as you can be when you are wounded out of the blue – or out of the black, to be more accurate – with no combat involved. And isn’t that how nearly all the boys and men were injured and killed, after all? If you are torn apart – a little bit or extensively or entirely – by high explosive thrown at you from a distance, by somebody you never saw, who knew or cared nothing about you except maybe as an abstract representation of “the enemy” – the valor involved is entirely different from a cavalry charge, say, or a sword fight or even a duel of rifles at point-blank range. They saw it – the soldiers saw it, whether the officers did or not – in the Civil War, 50 years earlier. Getting blown to bits by artillery fire while you hide from it in trenches was exactly what was happening in France and Italy in 1918. It was a world of difference from warfare as it existed in 1861, let alone in the Napoleonic era, say.

And when you were wounded you were a little embarrassed that you hadn’t been doing anything heroic.

Exactly. The experience didn’t match what we had been fed about it – mostly lies, of course, as usual in war – so at first I assumed there was something wrong with me. So, I dressed up the story to make it bearable, so I wouldn’t feel like a pretender.

You had to pretend to avoid feeling like a pretender.

Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? But I didn’t see it that clearly then, and maybe you weren’t so clear yourself when you were 19.

You don’t have to tell me! But, continue.

The real soldiers, the ones who had gotten wounded after long service, saw through me at once when I paraded through all decorated. They knew, you see. I was still seeing through civilian eyes, and the eyes of a kid who had just arrived, like a new recruit in 1864 would have been among men who had been wounded at Gettysburg and were still recuperating, or who had just been wounded at Forts Hell And Damnation. They knew, and I didn’t, even though my industrial accident had given me a spurious membership in the club. It was okay for me to use the clubs facilities, but I was an honor he member, and they knew it and made it plain.

Now, it’s funny how life works. I was an innocent, though I didn’t quite realize it because I was such a fast learner. My few months as a reporter in Kansas City had given me enough of a peek into the lives of the men who kept things going, like police and firemen, and the lives of people who had had their own industrial accidents (though I didn’t think of them that way yet) that I thought I had become hard-boiled. I felt toughened and knowledgeable. And of course I was so green, so much living in image and illusion, and everyone around me knew it, but I didn’t know it. So – I pretended my way through a succession of roles, altering the part as I went, learning from observation how the real heroes acted, figuring out how they felt, and mimicking them when safely not in their presence. This whole sequence was invaluable when I came to become a writer, for what is a writer of fiction if not somebody who gets inside somebody else’s skin and describes how the world looks from there?

And the result was that even when I was back home, or in Chicago, and I was still playing the role, I was feeling my way to a reevaluation of what I had expected to feel and what I really had felt; what I thought was the way things are, and what I had really found them to be. I pretended, or posed, maybe we should say, and it gave me cover, and with time I learned what had happened to me, and then I could start to express it.

I get that as others wrote their experiences, you learned from that too.

Well, sure. You think writers can always write and never read? I know you don’t, that was rhetorical. Reading other peoples stuff is a prime window on their world, and some things are going to be obvious, and some you’ll reject and some are going to surprise you and lead you to think about things differently.

It’s only been an hour, Papa, but I’m pretty tired. More another time, I hope.

It’s up to you as always – we aren’t going anywhere!

Enjoy your fishing.

You enjoy yours, too.

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